Monday, November 22, 2010

The Land of the Lost Wages

Once upon a time there was a desert. An intelligent and thirsty traveler traversing the dunes thought to himself, "I am parched man! Wouldn't it be awesome if there was a mind-befuddling dazzling blazing and completely unnecessary display of opulence right in the middle of nowhere?" His fellow travelers listened enraptured. None of them had come up with an idea for a long time, owing to the perpetual drying of brain cells in the desert.
One person inaudibly yelled with his desiccated voice, "Dude shut up!" But the idea remained. The thought persevered. Even after the sands shifted over the footsteps of the long-gone travelers, the notion floated about.

A mind-boggling show where humanity and botany scantly existed. Imagine the thought! The thought attracted traction. The idea gained gigantic momentum. The lure of opulence and the free-reign it allowed architects soon became impossible to resist.

Imaginary imitations of famous landmarks started sprouting. Julius Caesar's home was created- perhaps a tad grander, with more air conditioned rooms and slot machines. New York City, and Paris came together separated just by a block. Neon lights went up - brighter than most populated cities. A grandeur was born surrounded and within the dry desert.

I am sure the first few travelers atop camels would have discarded the spectacle as a highly misleading mirage.It must have been after they moved through the blazing neon's and beheld the scantily clad women with drinks, did their mirage become an oasis.

The above is a figment of my fertile imagination. The place I am referring to is Las Vegas, Nevada. I visited it recently (for the third time).

Before disembarking from my flight, the attendant asked the passengers to fill up a bag with their wages - to prevent them from losing it in Vegas. She laughed over the Public Address system in self-amusement and said, " Give it to me now before its gone in the Land of Lost Wages!" I didn't find it exactly funny.

Being a Bengali has certain advantages. Primary among them is the aversion to risk-taking. A bong won't be found near a slot machine for very long. One because he wouldn't have the heart to part with his hard earned money and two because he doesn't believe he could ever win. Bengalis are a pessimistic clan.

Bengalis are seldom lucky because they hardly participate in lotteries. For some reason this lack of luck has been rubbed on to me as well. The last time I "won" anything was when I was eight years old. My mother took both of us to see this Standing Talking Robot called "Khagenbabu". (The name is very stereotypical if you are in West Bengal). This robot's claim to fame was that it could talk and predict your age in 10 iterations! A gigantic achievement considering that robots in itself were never sighted in Kolkata.

Me and my sister along with fifty other visitors vied for the spot of "Face2Face with Khagenbabu". Owing to the popularity of Khagenbabu, the management decided to resort to lottery. Numbered pieces of paper were distributed to the onlookers and glass bowl was settled on a table. The number that came up would entitle the person with the same number to speak. After several juggling of the bowl, an aged Bengali picked up a single paper. Despite the prevailing lack of trust in lotteries, when it came to moments like this, all Bengalis joined the rest of the country. The held their breaths to listen, with feeble expectation and trembling hands clasped tightly around their papers. Me and my sister waited to. The enchanted number was announced, "17"! I was shocked! I had that number!

Like the Red Sea parted when Moses stood in front of it, the babbling bunch of Bengalis moved aside to have a better look at the winner. Khagenbabu was switched ON. He stared at me as well after the aged Bengali adjusted Khagenbabu's posture.

Needless to say he took 15 iterations to guess my age. Most of it owing to my nervousness and giving him misleading answers to his binary search questions. When he asked me if I was older than 34 years, I said Yes! I didn't realize what I had done until everyone around me started laughing. Obviously Khagenbabu with his infinite intelligence found it hard to find a number that was greater than 34 but less that 10!
That was the last time I won a numbered lottery.

Las Vegas was different. The first time I reached the blazing lights almost blinded me. The smoky rooms and the smell of alcohol wherever I went shocked me. It was truly a Sin City.

I played Black Jack, I played slot machines and I played "War". War is the most idiotic game ever invented. It requires absolutely no intelligence. The dealer gets a card and you get one. If the numerical value of yours is greater than that of the dealer's , you win. Simple. I sat down cautiously, egged by my friends who accompanied me. Twenty hard earned dollars were submitted to the Chinese dealer who said a friendly, "Ni hao ma?" to me. I smiled back. The first card was dealt. I was "2" and he was "9". The female beside me was a "10". The second card went the same way. After five cards of consistent losing, the dealer scrunched his eyebrows together. My woebegone face begged his mercy. He looked at me intently and said, "You not so lucky in this spot. Why don't you sit in the chair next to you? Big winner in that chair just two hours ago." I moved my rear end to the next one, trusting the dealer's insider information. My friends tendered their friendlier advice.
"Why don't you put twenty more dollars? New money would be luckier!"
I listened to them. Maybe Lady Fortune wasn't paying attention the first time.

The cards were dealt again. Ten straight lower numbers later, I left, minus forty dollars. Meanwhile my friends were entertaining other friends with my story of losing the "War"! I have stayed away from simple games ever since.

This time I went, I came across slot machines lined up outside a hotel, on the strip. The announcer was yelling about free slot machine plays once you win "100$" in the machine. I was enraptured. I swung the handle of the slot machine and lo and behold I had won a hundred dollars! Elated I ran to the announcer and asked for my winning money. It was then that she told me the next step. The money I won was "promotional", which means it has absolutely on value anywhere except on their "promotional slot machines". To make use of the "100$" I had to play at their machines. With the heat outside, I lumbered inside in search of this promo. I found it and sat myself down. On the eleventh turn I won big! The value of my winning incremented by a dollar and kept going up. The random dude sitting on my left hand side and my friend sitting on the right hand side, both got equally excited. As three pairs of eyes ogled at the mounting money, the cashier stopped by. He chuckled when he saw the amount stop at 450$. I was miffed at his amusement. I could be a small winner to him, but I was still a winner, I thought indignantly.

I soon found out the reason for his mirth. My winning 450 dollars were "promotional".
It only meant that I had to play longer and lose it all before I left the machine. More machine time and no real value. My left and right hand oglers immediately lost their interest in my game. I left broken-even.

The thing I noted this time was the sameness. The people, their looks, the places and their respective opulence had a monotonicity to itself. The bunch of oldies who flocked the slot machines had the same gleam of hope in their eyes. The hope of becoming the next millionaire. Like the trailer from Inception, they thought to themselves, "This last turn of the handle, that's how I get there!".

The younger crowd crammed the night clubs. Lugging drinks larger than their body weight they walked about on the strip, enjoying themselves despite the hurting heels, the long uncertain queues to enter the super-hallowed clubs manned by discriminatory guards and the constant jabber of at least one of their drunken friends. A casually dressed group of boys stood in line behind us to enter JET. As we exchanged pleasantries, I found out they were undergrads from Utah visiting for a night and two days. After standing an hour in the queue they were all turned away - the reason? They had no sexy woman with them.

Las Vegas night clubs blatantly flaunt their entry criteria. A measure of how "hot" you are can be found out by how quickly you gain admittance into the fanciest of night clubs. More women in a group also ensure easy passage. I have seen four guys trying vainly to tag one girl in the hope of being mistaken to be "together". It doesn't work. The guards at the gates have experience and a keen eye to discern the cool from the frigid.

Once in, you wonder what the hullabaloo was all about.Before you know it, you are bumping everyone around because your vision is impaired by the conservation of electricity. The lights there aren't meant for enlightenment. Most people crowd around the bar trying to vie for the bartender's attention. She couldn't care any lesser. They seldom appear interested in what you want but preoccupied in their world. I observed one bartender lady assiduously wiping the table for a continuous one hour thereby avoiding filling a single order!
Most people on the dance floor seem to be nudging each other than really dancing. Night clubs aren't for dancers, they are for those who don't want to dance at all. Every alternate step begins with them lifting one arm in the air and ends with bringing it down!

Not all clubs leave you suffocated for breath. There was one that I really liked because of the amazing ambiance within. A pool and an waterfall were all inside the night club! It was mesmerizing.It was called Tryst.

The constant walking on the strip gives people their much needed exercise. Of course the die hard gamblers never see day light. Within the gambling zone there is no night and there is no day. Even the ceilings have a false blue sky with cumulus clouds fogging your biological clock!

Vegas is known for its shows, its shopping and its bigheartedness to everything sinfully fantastic. There is a permanent charm of doing that extra fun bachelor party, the extra long drunken revelry , the extra dollars that could be won with the single toss of the elusively lucky die, and the extra special someone you could run into - that brings the older and newer visitors over and over again. Like the first weary traveler from my imagination, the desert in Vegas leaves most parched and thirsting for more.

Friday, October 01, 2010


I think I was born loving this place. How far ago in time I first heard of this land of dreams, escapes me. It could have been an idle Sunday afternoon, semi-dozing on the couch after a gigantic Sunday lunch, watching Sunday TV that I saw this place on the screen.

The idiot box glowed as every pixel lit up. The lush green melted with the snow white peaks. The blue of the sky touched the deeper blue of the waterfalls. The chimney smoke rose over red and orange buildings out of an elf-dom. In the center of it all was a prancing Shahrukh Khan. A dream was born.

Switzerland has been the epitome of Indian Honeymoon destinations. It was accorded that status primarily due to the Bollywood industry. They became the unpaid PR agency that handled all the propaganda revolving around creating it as the mystical spot for every newly wedded couple. Innumerable heroes shook a leg and an arm, wooing their lady love in the idyllic settings. Abundant trees were clasped and unclasped, in every love song, during the wooing process. There were enough birds, bees and gigantic green leaves in those forests to hide a kiss moment. Indian housewives sighed unanimously in carnal craving for this fabled land.

I fell for the Switzerland charm as well. When my friends at school asked me for my honeymoon destination, way before I became legally marriageable, I said without blinking, "Switzerland." Everyone nodded in agreement. There was no need for explanations. Instead if I had come up with Peru or China or Cuba or Mexico , I would have had to do a lot of geographical research to back my choice up.

Being a Bengali, the Switzerland dream is not so deeply entrenched in the older generation. When I asked my aunts and uncles about Switzerland, they would tell me, "Dhoot! Okhaney toh Shahrukh naachey. Gondogoler modhey naa jawai bhalo", which means, "Why should we end up at a place of chaos where Shahrukh dances?"
I guess if it was the eternal Bong favorite, Uttam Kumar, many would have made their travel arrangements.

I visited Switzerland this May to fulfill my cherished dream. Needless to say, the intention was to get away from the Indian connection after all the wedding socializing and relax in the charming foreign hills and vales. On the plane we found the seats packed with chattering Bengalis and Gujaratis. More of the latter than the former. Upon landing, their number doubled. They were everywhere. Swarming, gazing, ogling and enjoying. It was full family vacation!

Summer months are the peak times for rich families to push themselves out of India and visit a foreign zone. The housewives finally become successful in nagging their lazy husbands into making that phone call to the waiting travel agent. They were all decked up, drinking in every detail to narrate back in their kitty parties. The kids looked for food. We were in between.
As I made my way from one destination to the next I noticed the Indian touch more and more.

When I reached the top of Mount Titlis, in a cable car filled with forty yelling desis, I found my way to the peak by following the Hindi signposts, where I found a life-size cutout of DDLJ poster. As I fell flat on the snow, trying to walk, a hand shot out to help me. The hand spoke Gujarati.
In Junfraujoch, the Italian chef said one word to us, " Phir aana!" as we saw hordes of Indians of every age group making their way to the Bollywood Restaurant on the second floor of the Ice Castle on "Top of Europe" destination.
As I took my place in Panoramic Glacier Express and lost myself in fantastic fables of self glory, along came a Tamilian Swiss Rail worker, asking me for my lunch order.
In Zermatt, when I strolled about in the car-less village, I bumped into a Bengali. He was attired in a monkey cap, brown gloves, blue socks and sandals. As soon as the collision took place, he asked in a concerned voice, "Aaha laglo bujhi?" (Did it hurt?). I had left my mom's advice aside and tried to look cool instead of cold. It translated into wearing light clothing instead of being a mobile clothes rack. Due to the lack of cushion on me, a hit would hurt. Hence his concern was genuine and logical.

In Interlaken, I plonked myself into a cab. The Swiss cab driver, smiled at me. I smiled back. I had come to enjoy the utmost friendliness of Swiss people. They are encouraged to be super cordial to the visiting masses. A couple had helped us schlep our baggage to our hotel from the train station in Zurich. It quite a distance of schlepping. I had been impressed since then. If it was India, I would perhaps be suspicious.

As the cabbie smiled, we exchanged some mundane pleasantries.
"Did you know, the name of Interlaken is going to be changed soon", asked the cabbie.
I said no. I had no idea that was on Swiss Government's plan of action. Definitely my research didn't yield any such info and I had done a great deal of it. Interlaken was quite an apt name, if you asked me. It meant in between lakes. This small village was tucked away cozily between two largest lakes in Switzerland - Brienz and Thun. How could they replace such a logical nomenclature with something more appropriate? Tough I thought and I became curious to know what the new moniker would be.
"What is the new name going to be?" I asked inquisitively.
"They are planning to call it India-Laken!" He ended with a chuckle.

I slumped back into my seat. Tell me about it!

Switzerland was picture perfect. I managed to click more than a thousand photos and still feel inadequate when capturing its beauty. Despite the heavy "home" feeling in this foreign soil, finding myself in the land of Heidi was indeed a lifetime treat.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Fro -Yo!

I am referring to Frozen Yogurt.
I have entered every "tutti-frutti", honey berry, pink berry, red mango, tango fango - you can name and I have sampled their fare. There is a certain force that forces me to enter the portals of anything to do with sweet yogurt.

Being a Bengali, Fro-Yo is a part of our culture. Depending on which Bengali you manage to accost, our culture can demand from 4 hours to 10 minutes of lecture time. In my childhood, Sundays demanded special attention. My dad, whenever he was home, picked up two "bajaar-er bag" (market bags) and made his way to the neighborhood plaza. You had to have your own bags. Unlike here where plastic or paper is an option. It wasn't a plaza exactly. More like a farmer's market where farmers sat on the dirt road and laid out their fare on relatively clean pavements. Then they squatted down, fanned themselves and their produce with their tattered towels and got ready to haggle. As soon as the first shops were set up, the Bengali "babus" (gentlemen) queued up for the fish.

The best fish went quickly in the morning. The earlier you elbowed your nearest Bengali out of the line, the higher the probability was of getting a fresher catch. Bengalis weren't very polite when it came to fish. They assumed the business acumen they never had, when it came to buying their favorite "topshe", "illish(salmon)", "rui(Rohu)" and "chingri(shrimp)" "macch(fish)" (types of fish). A typical conversation between the vendor and the consumer would proceed this way.

"How much for the "macch"? The Bengali babu would bark.
"One for twenty. How many shall I pack?" The vendor moved on to the next question without bothering to find out if his customer was really interested.
"How about two for twenty-five?" The Babu would ask with a smirk. Inside he would think he was making a killing. Outside he would pretend that the vendor was making a killing.
"I can give three for thirty. Freshest stuff ever. Can't let go like this. Want it or not?"

The haggling proceeded till no one really made a killing. In my dad's case he ended up with four fishes, which he never intended to buy in the first place, at fifty-five rupees! It would inevitably mean a kitchen overtime for my mom which would turn into a domestic conflict for both of them. One time I have seen one or two of those fresh fish flying through the window and making their way to their home town, namely the nearest swamp. Of course there was no assurance that the fish would be the freshest.

After the fish and the "bhegetables", my dad would make his way to the local sweet shop. A "bhaar" of "rosogolla" would be packed along with "mishti doi"(sweet yogurt). (Bhaar is an earthen pot).

Misthti Doi or sweet yogurt was the Bengalis version of Fro-Yo. Of course no Bengali would be caught in Bongland uttering those words to a earthen pot of "doi". A Bengali household will hardly ever make "rosogolla" or "mishti doi" at home. Those are duties performed superbly by the local sweet suppliers. They have perfected the art so well that not a single "mashi" and "pishi" (aunts) I know will venture into it. I have however found a multitude of Bengali wives concocting their own blend of "mishti doi" in foreign lands.

When my dad returned from his morning market responsibilities, we would be waiting to grab his bags. The sweets would be the first ones he would lose control of. The Sunday morning breakfast would include the ubiquitous "luchhi alur dum" (bread with potatoes) and "rosogolla mishti doi" (sweets I just mentioned).

As a child I have finished several pots of Fro-Yo single handedly. Opening and closing the refrigerator door several times on Sundays was one of my favorite hobbies. (I couldn't put it down on my resume because there aren't enough people doing it to give it the "hobby" status). Long after all the goodies were gone, I kept opening the door, expecting something new to pop up. It never did.

The Bengali Fro-Yo served an important part in our lives. Every exam I recall started with a little blob of Fro-Yo. As I made my hurried exit from my house, burdened with overnight wisdom and a lunch box, my mom would pull me back. Holding me still, she would apply a generous dab of the sweet yogurt on my forehead. It was auspicious. It was for success. I don't know how much credit the yogurt took for my good grades but I do blame it wholeheartedly for my uncool quotient. By the time I reached school, the other ladies of my class would already have appeared, properly attired and perfectly "figured". Then they would spot us - me and my sister, perfectly rounded with an extra distorted circle of white congealed mass on their foreheads.
When I watched the epic and the war tales Doordarshan doled out on the mass media, the kings and the princes made their way to the battlefield with a similar mark ("tika") on their foreheads. No one thought it was un-savvy. Women worldwide sighed at the mark. The mark symbolized greatness. It even symbolized sexiness.

Mine on the other head made me ugly. I could not ask my mom to stop doing it either. Secretly in my heart, I needed a support system. Something that wouldn't fail when my one night cramming did. A weapon that would induce higher brain function for those crucial hours. Maybe God was testing me. The uglier I got, the better my grades were.
It was only in my college that I stopped having the white spot. That's when I started missing it.

Here, nobody dabs my forehead with yogurt any more. Interviews, tests, transitions, presentations go by without the yogurt touch. I would have to do a lot of explaining turning up with a monster white spot in an American workplace. My colleagues are still grappling with the concept of red dots ("bindis") and red spots ("sindur") without me adding another color to their overburdened spectrum.

I attempted making my first "mishti doi" after feeling all mushy about it. Halfway into the recipe, on step 2, pouring the molten sugar water into my hot milk, my milk curdled. The Fro-Yo dream dissolved into a sweet undefined paste. I have decided to give it another try before bowing my head to the Bengali Fro-Yo experts in Bongland. Their art remains supreme. I can bet they would give a good competition to the mango tango s in the area. As to how they would ever get their business out here - "maa Kali" knows!
(Maa Kali refers to Mother and Goddess Kali, a consort of Shiva)

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Two in Two

It is cryptic, I agree. But that's the point.
Someone who was not very good at writing had once given me a priceless piece of advice. He had said, "Keep the title cryptic! Give as little away as possible in the first line. That way they move on to the next in search for the clue." What he forgot to mention is the degree of cryptic-ism.

Two in two refers to my life on the road, pertaining particularly to my car.

The month was July and the day was thirteenth. I don't suffer from triskaidekaphobia and hence I was a happy woman driving back from work on a moderately congested CA 237. My speed slowed down considerably and came to a halt altogether when I spotted an unending line-up of standstill cars with their back lights flashing red.I stopped. It was not very unusual to come to a stop on this particular freeway at this particular hour of the day. Everybody wanted to get somewhere at this time and because of the collective decision, individuals went nowhere.

I sat tapping my fingers about and distracted myself trying to hum an extra mushy song that I had heard a few days back. Drivers around me looked at me angrily. I knew they couldn't hear me with my windows rolled up. Or could they? It possibly had to do something with the heat and the general feeling of hopeless frustration one finds oneself when they have a wheel and a will but still no way to go.

I nodded, at no one particular and continued my mellifluous activity.

Suddenly, I heard a loud screeching sound. Before I knew it a loud bang followed. It was also accompanied with a forceful impact - on me. I bounced forth and back and realized it was my car that the screeching-car had hit. For a few minutes I knew not what to do.

Meanwhile the screeching car came to a halt on the shoulder of the freeway.
Other drivers looked at me expectantly. I was supposed to "do" something. The road suddenly turned into a stage and I became the second lead character. The first was the screeching car. On a standstill freeway this was the only form of live entertainment.

I drove over to the shoulder and parked quite a few feet away from him. There was no knowing if he had done it on purpose and on finding me alive, wouldn't want to do it again.

I got out of my car self-consciously. The traffic behind seemed to edge a little forward while those in the front stopped budging ahead. All the inactive drivers had something to do now. Namely stare.

I stepped outside my car. The damage was conspicuous. It was my first car which needless to say I bought with my first pay check. It had tremendous sentimental value and some stupidity involved. I paid more than I should at that time. Bargaining with conniving dealers was not my forte.
But my car was not at fault. It should not have met with this fate. I peeled my eyes off the rear end of my car, which was now pretty badly butted out. On the road lay the fallen remnants of a battle lost before it was ever fought. My face fell.

I looked over. The screeching car came into sight. It was white and was equally devastated. My black car and his white car had scars running down their opposite sides on opposite ends. Our cars might have even been mates in an earlier birth if their souls subscribed to Hindu Rebirth notion. Perhaps it was an unsettled debt that had to be dealt with?
His damage was more profound than mine. His face however looked more confused.

I walked over to him and said "Hi".
Some nearby drivers tried to edge their ears closer. Were they expecting me to be more dramatic?

If I was in India it would have been entirely different.

Roadside Romeos and Robinhoods would have emerged from their hiding. They would have presented and dismissed the case with a verdict in minutes. No investigation or deliberation required. When a pretty woman in short skirt is hit by a nerd in ragged jeans, the latter is at fault. Bingo! Case resolved. There would possibly be some needless expletive thrown his way and some unwanted assistance rendered to me. A over enthusiastic "Chulbul Pandey" might even come up with the idea of hospitalizing me, just on the off chance that I could be spiritually if not physically hurt. I pulled myself away from the Indian image.

I was in US and there were protocols to be followed. By-stander court-of-law was non-existent.

He apologized immediately.
"I am so sorry for all this. I am so sorry."
I gave him a woebegone smile. It was difficult to reprimand a person so contrite.
Before I could ask his name, he began again.
"I spaced out. I completely "zoned" out. I know I shouldn't have but I did."
I wondered which zone he went off to when everyone around him was stuck on 237. He looked pretty young to be wanting to go to space at this age. I myself have been toying with the idea of a space venture but I know I would never have the money.

"Are you below eighteen?" I thought that might explain his zoning-out syndrome.
"No no. I just turned nineteen!", he answered indignantly.

We exchanged personal information. I found out he was given to drive the worst car his family owned. And his family owned quite a few new expensive ones. Maybe his dad predicted these things well. If my dad was to choose to give me a car, he would have given me a rickshaw! I had a new found respect for his doting dad.

I found out that he didn't know the difference between an insurance policy document and a car registration one. Upon enlightenment it turned out he didn't have the former with him. He decided to call his dad. I nodded in agreement.

"Hello dad?" He said. (10 seconds of distinct silence).
"Yes, I am in CA 237, rear-ended someone, need the policy number NOW!" (10 minutes of indistinct loud noise.)
"Ok so it AB-blah-blah. Thanks!" He hung up pretty quickly.

I wondered what kind of father-son confrontation would be waiting for him and what kind of car-less plight would be waiting for me. If I was in his position, my dad, would denounce my mother first, blaming my driving skills on her side of genes.
Both me and my sister have been badly tossed about while growing up from one side of lineage to the other depending on whether we bumbled or we blazed. When I got my first award for coming third in my Class, my father lapped me and accolades up as being very like his side of genes. A day later I smashed his car window by an accidental ball hit. I was discarded as an outcast and sent off to the enemy camp, namely my mother's gene pool.The "bangal" (aboriginal Bengalis) and the "ghoti" (original Bengalis) live in constant strife and harmony. Me being the "bati"( "ba" from bangal+"ti" from ghoti) have seen much of the push-and-pull in childhood.

The next day I received my rental car. It was a car that no one wanted from the rental office. The person handing me the keys, looked bemused and said,
"I didn't know they still made these any more."

It was a Nissan Cube. Blue and big. My friends, named it the "Cartoon Cube". The square windows and doors boxed me in. My sense of thinking altered itself as well. I stopped thinking out-of-the-box. Instead of being "cool" in the cube, I became conscious.

My colleagues came around for a viewing and a free laugh therapy. On-road rage increased. Drivers screamed at the slightest delay I made in budging once it was my turn. At every turn, I came across amused or angry public.

Less than a week into it, I started feeling a little better. The car was a 2010 model and drove very smoothly. It had less than a 1000 miles on it. I felt privileged to be taking care of a pariah car.

A week later I relaxed and let myself feel at ease. It was afternoon. 3 o clock. At a red light. The light turned green. The car in front of me took 1 minute to move ahead. Being ridiculed for no good reason this past week, I refrained from honking at him and patiently waited. After all, I was at ease. Before I knew it, I was hit. Again. For a second I thought, the driver behind me had resorted to nudging me with her car to move ahead. Perhaps she preferred that to honking?

I let out a sigh before flashing my indicators and moving to the shoulder. It was a deja vu on a hot summer day. It was a teenage driver. She came out of her car and asked me, "What happened exactly?" She kept asking me the same question quite a few times.
"You hit me from behind. That is what happened." I explained, again and again.
She explained that her phone fell down and in an attempt to pick it up, her leg eased off the brake pedal and boom! I was hit.

The exchange was one way. She was least interested in me and continued her text-ing marathon. I felt like an unsolicited salesman when I forced her to note down my name and number.

My mother called me. She had heard of my driving debacle from my sister and was ready for a confrontation.
"You should stop driving", she said angrily when I picked up her call.
"I should what?"
"Yes of course", she continued. You have had two accidents and in two weeks! In different cars. The only thing common is you!" She had logic, I had to give that.
"Monty, Dumba and Bampi are all driving around. They never get hit. Why is it you?"
The three names belonged to three pestilent boys who grew up with me. Their pet names were very Bengali. Bengalis had a fascination for bombastic booming names. The moment you called your son it should herald a celebratory blast.Their lack of rear ended accidents were none of my concern.

It took a lot of effort to convince my mom of my lack of guilt despite being the prime suspect and link in both the incidents. Thankfully she did not head any of the insurance companies. I was in talks with three insurance companies at the same time, all of whom accepted that I was "100% not-at-fault." I breathed a sigh of relief.

My car was declared total loss. I wept silently at the verdict. My car looked forlorn. I refused to let go. I paid a sum of money and bought back my car from the insurance settlement. It is still pretty drive-able. I got it cosmetically modified at an auto shop.It stays parked now. It has been deemed an emergency vehicle or a garage car. I have resorted to driving another one.

I looked at it today. Parked solemnly, with a non-pretty butt, under the shade of a green tree. It has suffered in silence and reconciled itself. I haven't. Hence I dedicate this post to him.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Going Out of Business!

One of the memories I have of a sudden fit of joy was while I was walking down Westwood in Los Angeles. I was a poor immigrant student with huge dreams and very little green bills. In one such moment I spotted this watch shop. The name of which escapes me.
It had a huge banner hanging on its front face.

" Going Out of Business! Entire Store on Sale!"

That was my first brush with corporate cunning. I walked inside the store happy and unaware. Every watch on display had a strike-through price. The strike-through price was significantly more than the red-underlined price below it. As the strike-through prices elicited "Oh My God really?", the red prices made me go, "Phew! That's so much better!". As the watches sparkled and beckoned me I recalled my Class 6 maths lessons.

There were several lectures dedicated to marked prices, sell prices, and profit margins. The odd thing was that there were no problems in that chapter that dealt with loss margins. No matter how lowly a price the sell price turned out to be in comparison to the marked price, once you complete working out the problem correctly, lo and behold, there emerged a "profit"! In some cases I managed to get loss and I knew what that meant. I had to re-do my sum. It was a sure give away for a math-muddle made.

As I looked at these watches, their lowered red prices held me attracted.
An old man ambled towards me. He looked at me and said,
"Yeah that's a good one. Very expensive but now so cheap. That's what happens when you go out of business." He shook his head sadly.
I looked up. A part of me wanted to know the deep woeful story that was forcing this fat rich looking man to close his business. Was it a bumbling disobedient son? A prodigal daughter? Or both who squandered away his riches and forced their father to sell the last vestige of his hard work? He looked pretty happy. That seemed odd.How can a soon to-be-out-of-businessman look so dapper?

Maybe he had a mistress hidden away in the alleys of Venice? He was scuttling away from America to be with his secret paramour! That would explain his undue gaiety.

I tried to remember any out-of-business Bengalis. None came to mind. Bengali-s weren't exactly known for their business acumen. Too much fish and mustard made them PhDs and literary figures. The closest I could come to a business man was our chowkidaar/ gate-keeper. He had a side business of selling eggs and milk. He got hold of my mom and subscribed her to a month's supply of milk. Of course he coaxed her about how "new" his business was and how he had to have a month's money in advance before even the first packet of Mother Dairy could be dropped at our doorstep. My mom complied. Hardly ten days into the verbal contract, milk stopped appearing. Two days of condensed and evaporated milk teas later, my dad took matters in his own hands. He did a minor sleuth work.He found out that our gate-keeper had a new business model. The milk line of business was completely abandoned for the egg line. Since we were the milk customers, we got a personal hand written message of regret and one last packet of milk.

My dad was not a man to be messed with. This time he did major sleuth work and found out that the new egg line shop was set up not so far away from our locality. He decided to drop by. He picked up about a dozen eggs, smiled and started walking off. Our gate-keeper was aghast. When he asked for money, my dad said, you do have quite a bit of that left over from the milk money, don't you?

That was the last we ever heard of or saw his shop. He really went out of business and out of Kolkata. Maybe still sells his millk-n-eggs in Bihar...who knows.

I was jolted out of my recollection, by the old man standing right in front of me.
He was expecting me to go ga-ga over his amazing under-priced collection. It wasn't bad. The "80% OFF" was a neon light drawing me to it like a moth. After a laborious scrutiny of his watches under the glass cover, I selected two of them. One for myself and one for my sister.

As he gift-wrapped my purchases, he reminded me again of what a steal I had bagged and how infinitely happy I would be wearing them while his shop would disappear into nothingness. It hit me.

"Does this mean this is all Final Sale? No returns or exchanges?" I asked perplexed.
"Yes of course. I am going out of business. What you buy now, it is yours for eternity. Don't try to bring it back, not that you would ever want to return these wonderful watches." He answered smilingly.

It has been five years since that incident. Last time I dropped by Westwood while visiting my school, I found his shop still standing. It still had the banner proclaiming its eternal "Going out of Business status", only the font size and colors were different.

What kind terrific business acumen made him able to retain his business for so long? Was "going" never going to "go"? I realized that shops like that were actually flourishing all around me. They had a going-out-sale and then a few days later a "coming-in-sale" after altering a vowel in their names and declaring it as a new business. Selling things at final price also gave them the edge on getting rid of unwanted stocks and zero return policy.

The watch I bought for myself, stopped ticking long time ago. It went out of business much before its shop did. I guess it kept its promise and timed itself to die in empathy with its master, who never kept his word.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

The Bengali Brahmin

I am one, and so is my dad. What's so special about them anyways?
While I was in India I never realized their speciality. Maybe I didn't ponder over it.
It came to my attention in a strange way.

I was at lunch with my colleagues from work. One of my American team mates saw me sitting down with a aromatic chicken dish. He stared at me hard, gauging me and my food choice. Minutes of mental calculations later, he opened his mouth with a grin.

"You must be a non-higher class Indian!", he said confidently.
"Excuse me?" I asked indignant. My Brahmin blood pressure started rising.
"You are eating chicken. I know all higher class Indian dudes are veggies. You are not. I have even spotted you with sushi rolls. So I did some smart deductions and placed you in the appropriate Indian class structure!" He seemed rather pleased with himself for his sleuth prowess.
I had to correct this American dude. An education and an enlightenment was in need.

I began my discourse, much on the same lines as the first Brahmin pundit might have started off teaching a bunch of no-good disciples in his Gurukul. There were no gigantic banyan trees shadowing us but it was no less profound.

A commonly held belief among people I encountered here was that Indians are vegetarians. How Indians survived on no meat diet was a point of curiosity. Obviously when asked the Indians replied stating religion and higher caste. Brahmins all over India are strict vegetarians. (Some younger generation ones might not be practicing it.) However that is not true for my dear old Bongland.

In Kolkata every Brahmin kid grows up on "machher jhol" and "bhaat", the traditional rice and fish curry. We are famous for our "eeesh!" (popularized by Aishwarya in Devdas), our "feeeesh" and our beloved "eeleesh"!(Hilsa or Salmon)
Chicken is the first runner-up. We love them too. Every Sunday my mother used to prepare the awesome aromatic chicken curry in our ancient Prestige Pressure Cooker.

Perhaps she had received it as one of her wedding gifts. Giving Pressure Cookers as wedding gift item was extremely popular in my part of the country. A couple who forgot to mention “no gifts” in the wedding invite ended up with atleast a dozen 12 liter cookers. Left in this predicament with scanty kitchen space, the couples had to resort to re-cycling. Going green has always been an Indian initiative, albeit unrecognized. They re-gifted the pressure cookers to other unsuspecting couples. Care had to be taken to ensure the exact same model wasn’t given back. A cautious shuffling ensued.
People soon got wind of this pressure cooker musical chair. They re-invented the gift. Pressure cookers appeared as gift items – with a minor change. Names of the newlyweds and the gift-ers were deeply engraved in metal! Aha! No more cookers coming back now! This had a bi-directional impact.
My parents were stuck with the ancient cooker and couples about to wed ensured they wrote “NO GIFTS (especially cookers!)”

Fish, chicken and rice being the staple diet of every Brahmin kid and elderly person, there is little room to practice vegetarianism. Some Bengali Brahmins refused to give up though. The love of fish superseded the love for chicken. They became neo-veggies. They ate fish and called themselves Vegetarians. That only served to befuddle the other Brahmins from other states of India when they invited or got invited over to dinner parties by these neo-veggies. These new age Bengali Brahmins have also got a word for themselves – peskiterians.

I wonder what started the first Brahmin off on the path of chicken and fish in Kolkata. Common sense dictates availability of food choices over religious practices. The first Brahmin sat wondering at his options by the Bay of Bengal.
“Was it better to eat the delectable yellow mustard curry of this soft boned Salmon or was it better to never think of them while others devoured them around me?” Of course it was tough not to think of them. They were prancing everywhere – from the oceans, to the fishing nets, to the harbor, to the stinky markets to the dinner plates! It would be hard to live in denial, hence acceptance set in. Brahmins in Bengal started off on fish. Chicken followed in soon after.

Fish is considered auspicious in Bengal. My grandmother used to call upon the goddess Durga in her own way – “dugga dugga” and added “doi mach” (yogurt fish) along with it whenever we left home on a journey. The combination of yogurt and fish is not a dish. It is a combination of two auspicious items taken in one breath. To make it doubly good and really auspicious!

Fish shows up in weddings as well. Huge sized fish are exchanged between the groom and the bride. These are decorated with sandalwood, red netted veil and sometimes even ornamented. They symbolize a “fresh” beginning to a new life. Care is taken to buy the biggest catch of the day, early in the morning the “totto” (gift sets) are sent off to the groom’s side.

All these illustrations later, I asked my colleague,
“I am of the highest caste (not that it matters) with a fish- and-chicken diet. Did you get it?”
He looked at me confused.
“Fine so you aren’t a practicing Brahmin, that’s all. I get it!”

I gave up. For a moment I sensed the frustration the Brahmin Guru might have felt when elaborate examples failed to penetrate the thick head of one of his students. At least he had the luxury of “beth” (long stick) to spank his point in. I had to content myself with a sigh and an extra large spoonful of chicken breast.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

East meets West

I am a Bengali and he is a Gujarati.
We decided to get married on the same day and to each other! It was a decision born as much out of impulse as it was well thought out. He proposed "suddenly" after knowing me for a decently "long time" and I gawked! He took that as an Yes and I blushingly let him. That was the beginning.

I didn't realize that National Integration, breadth wise, wasn't a matter of joke. The rosogollas and dhoklas aren't usually eaten in the same meal. "Mathho" (flavored sweet curd) wasn't the same as "Mishti doi" (sweet curd) . But we had to try.

The thing with parents is that, no matter how many times you let them know of your boyfriend they will choose not to acknowledge it until it really happens. In the heart of their hearts they wish to be in control of your marital destiny. Surprisingly both my parents and his had a love marriage. For my parents, the Bengali of the east had married the Bengali of the west, and I was born as the hybrid, or in bong words, "Bati". According to me, I took it to the next level. I was the Indian of the East getting married to the Indian of the West.

"It is this very Amricaan thinking that has ruined your brain, no?" my parents barked.
" Who asked you to go to Amricaa? I knew it. Horrid country, I say." my mother concluded and my father nodded in agreement. It is unusual for my parents to agree on the same topic most of the times but when it came to my marital destiny they teamed up. I realized since I had managed to unite my parents, all I had to do was to unite them "FOR" me.

The rosogolla battle wasn't an easy one. I cooked for them (something my dad hated to eat), I regaled them with amazing stories what an ideal hubby the guy from the west can be (much of it sadly was made up), I told them of the enormous respect both of us, especially he had for them and so on and so forth. The thing with parents is , no matter what, they aren't convinced their bumbling baby can be taken care of well enough by anyone other than themselves, or maybe another Bengali dude in my case. They eulogized the amazing Bong culture which oozes out of every Bengali. It didn't work.

Every Indian considers their culture superlative- how can there be any comparison? Every Bengali boasts of rich literature, creativity and "Robiguru(Rabindranath)" and so does every other state - except Robiguru, coz that's unique to us. But because of this ingrained superiority complex which almost every culture suffers from, which surfaces most vividly during a love marriage, there is an inhibition in accepting that the other one can be better in several aspects than their own. That there could be a world of good among non-Bengalis, believe it or not!
Despite the hiccups, I was winning. My sister pitched in as well.

Meanwhile my would-be hubby was managing a mini-thepla-war at his end. (thepla - a sort of gujarati parantha). I pitched in with my amazing social skills and tried bowling them over. My would-be sister-in-law was pretty perky too. She chipped in with her unbiased opinions (which were in my favor, after I had managed to convince her to be on my side).

Then the day arrived. "Sondesh"(famous bong sweet) exchanged hands with the "Puranpoli"(famous gujju sweet). Gujaratis and Bengalis both spoke broken Hindi and guffawed at the same random joke. (I am sure each understood it differently). It was a moment in history. I was the translator, who translated only the good from either side.

On the 18th of last month, my wedding day occurred. Big Day for both the parties. To arrange a traditional Bengali wedding in a foreign land like Mumbai is no mean deal. My parents decided to import stuff straight from Kolkata. My mom, dad and relatives were heavily involved in goods transport - from the wedding dresses for the bride and the groom, to the "boron kulo"(the decorated plate to welcome the groom) to even the wedding garlands were flown in. The garlands appeared magically on the early morning flight! No matter what, a true Bengali has to get the thing straight from Kolkata!

An eclectic bunch of people accumulated. My best friend was a Tamilian girl and his best buddy was a Kashmiri guy. The wedding was heavily attended by Marathis, Punjabis, Rajasthanis and organized by a handful of Bengalis while the groom's side were all Gujaratis. It was National Integration of some sorts.

The Spinster's Rice, the Yellowing of the body, the before-sunrise-meal, decorating the welcome plate, the ritual of calling the dead forefather's blessings - all occurred in sequence and as per Ranu-di's instructions. Ranu-di was called upon again, now from Mumbai. She was becoming quite the wedding consultant on her own.

On the D-Day, "Mumbaiya" photographers and videographers arrived. My parents let them know what an excellent job the Kolkata photo-walas did.
"Arrey don't worry Auntyji and Uncleji. We are guaranteeing it will look excellent. So good that you would want to get married again, just for the photos!"
It is amazing how Indians sell their trade with guarantees. If I am an ugly looking hag, no matter what, their camera will capture it. A camera doesn't lie but the camera-man sure did.

I went to a famous parlor in Mumbai for my makeup. They had been well instructed about how a Bengali bride oughtta look because they had no clue. As expected they made several modifications. I wore the Saree in Gujarati style and had bright stone stickers on my forehead instead of the "kum-kum and chandan"(red color and sandalwood design). Every Bengali item used to decorate the bride was scrutinized. (They had all been flown in from Kolkata). They decided to give me the National look and appeal. Thankfully when my mom beheld me she didn't go into fits. Except the Bengalis no one knew exactly how a Bengali bride ought to look.
For my wedding, my sister and my mother wore Gujarati style Sarees and mehendis (henna hand decorations). I was mighty pleased with my mom for her adaptivity.

The Groom arrived with his entourage. Since none of them had any past experience in Bengali weddings, everything was new and fun. The welcoming "ulu"(sound made by women to drive away evil spirits) almost drove half of them away! The groom had been prepared for this eerie sound before so he stood his ground.

As the "barati-s"(groom's side) were escorted to their seating area, I sat in my secluded room awaiting the "Ashirwaad"(blessings from the in-laws). I touched my in-laws feet with some extra gusto and some thankfulness for their cooperation. After it was done, my sister and my best friend escorted me out with a beetle leaf covering my eyes. I wasn't allowed to see the groom's face until the auspicious moment. It was called the "Shubho-drishti". After seven blinded circles around the groom I was pretty much reeling from the torque. The groom on the other hand was having a gala time. Dressed up as a Bengali Babu, he looked pretty unique. His relatives found the "topor"(groom's headgear) like the leaning tower of Pisa and wanted to play with it afterwards! Once I set eyes on him, I smiled and he laughed. I hadn't treated him with such scales of royalty before. Holding the fan of his "dhoti"(traditional equivalent of pants) and helping me with the other hand, the groom ascended the stairs of the "mandap"(place of wedding) with me.

The punditji this time was younger and resident of Mumbai. My sister had googled him up. He claimed to speak fluent Hindi which is what every Bengali claims and only another Bengali understands!
He started his elaborate proceedings. He had an assistant who seemed to be mesmerized by the non-Bengali "junta"(attending public) and consistently botched up the punditji's instructions. Meanwhile my starving father was trying to get the ceremonies done in the fast-forward mode. This time he was tactful.
"Punditji, you are really good at this and I know it has been years of experience for you. Why don't you selectively do the critical aspects in order to get them married quicker?" Dad ended with a coy smile.
Punditji considered.
"I can do it elaborately for 3 hours you know, I am pretty seasoned at it. But I will consider your special request", punditji smiled back.
My dad nodded understandingly and told a relative to leave a hefty "dakshina"(fees) for the punditji.
The ceremonies began. Our names was repeated a zillion times starting from our great-grandfather and ending with a "Swaha", which was a cue to pour more "ghee"(clarified butter) into the fire. Punditji kept forgetting my name, and repeatedly asked,
"So who are you again?!"
As for the groom, his name was distorted in the Bengali equivalent of itself and except for my elbow nudges he had no clue he was being called!
The remaining Gujaratis hovered around the mandap and mainly gossiped among themselves trying to decipher the Bengali proceedings and trying to find their equivalent in their own wedding ceremonies. Since it was new for almost all , none had a reason to complain. The only people squabbling were the pundit and his assistant.
The photographers had their own secret agenda. They chose angles and disrupted punditji's "mantra"(spells) flow several times. They moved the fire away from our faces onto the pundit's face to get a better lighting! As the pundit sweated, we smiled for the lenses.

Throughout the wedding, my dad was omnipresent. He was jumping up and down trying to say mantras, throw ceremonial rice at the fire, inviting people in, growling at disruptive children and actually calling for divine intervention in Hindi!His Hindi had got significantly better while he managed to pick up one Gujarati word, "Kem cho"(how are you). (That was because he thought it was a shorter way of saying "Kemon Achoo" (how are you)).
My mom on the other hand was an one-woman-army. She was the ONLY know-it-all in this proceedings and had to constantly remember the sequence of things needed for the ceremony (as per Ranu-di's outline). But in Bengali weddings, the daughter's mother doesn't get to see the wedding. So my mom sat quarantined in another room with intermittent company from my relatives and my sister.

After the pundit was done, the photographers took over. They managed to bring out the film-star in us. I posed in every shape and size and so did my newly-wedded hubby. The more they asked him the more he obliged, totally forgetting there was a wedding-reception which had been underway one and a half hours ago! I realized that I had to be the smarter one in my new family from now on. I took matters in my own henna-decorated hands. I shoved him aside and posed for my solo "chobbi-s"(pics)!

More posing, smiling, clicking, thanking, introducing followed in the next venue. My dad had organized the wedding and the reception in side by side locations on Marine Drive. We had to rush from one to the other and because they were so near, no one wanted to drive. My parents had anticipated that my hubby would find it difficult managing his "dhoti" and had a change of suit-and-boot ready. Their thoughtfulness didn't extend to me and like every other bride I tried maintaining my bride-like poise running between the "mandap" and the reception hall. Several couple and group photographs later, they allowed us to eat. Since I was the Bengali bride I had been starving, but the groom wasn't. He had been enjoying his regular meals plus delicious snacks! Pretty unfair I must say. Gujjus should incorporate wedding day starvation ritual.

The food was spread under the open terrace with the sea breeze blowing in from Marine Lines. (And it was neither Bengali nor Gujarati but somewhere in between). As we finished with food amid our friends, our parents chatted in Hindi as well. Broken or otherwise, they seemed to understand what it felt to have their children married. Each of them had dreams surrounding their amazing daughter and their brilliant son, but neither had married according to their wishes. No matter how infinitely better a Bengali dude for me or a Gujju bimbo for him would have been , none of us understood it.
As the breeze cooled the land, it relaxed the people as well. I glimpsed my mother-in-law trying to hug my mom, who isn't used to public display of affection while my dad was getting overwhelmed with several hugs from the male members of the Gujju barat. Gujjus are openly affectionate while Bengalis try it subtly. So when one meets the other, their hug is a catch-me-if-you-can game! Despite it being new, it was nice. A hug edge ways, a smile sideways - the Bengalees and the Gujaratis managed to find many things in common. As the stars shone down, the east and west met each other with open arms and amused faces - all on my wedding day!

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Two Weddings and ...

I contemplated about the title for a bit - you see this blog has predominantly been a funny one. Adding a funeral to the title sobers the reader up instantly, even those regular readers who are used to my style of comic writing. But I couldn't help myself, so here goes.

First the wedding happened. Then the funeral. Then the next wedding.

My sister decided to tie the knot. Life was fun for her, she had a job, friends, great looks (thanks to being my identical twin), and dotting parents but then people on the left and people on the right were getting married and suddenly disappearing in this zone of couple-hood where past friendships are neglected. Single-hood so far had been hip and happening and marrying seemed like a fitting way to end it. The search had begun sometime ago and the groom was chosen. The D-Day arrived and so did I.
To chronicle what goes on in a typical Bengali marriage is an onerous task. My mother, whom I believed to be the know-it-all had another know-it-all whom she frequently rung up, exchanged the usual Bengali greetings which began with "How are you doing..." and without waiting for an answer continues onto , "..and what to say my daughter decided to get married and all...and you know how difficult it is ....I have forgotten so many teeny tiny why don't you tell me...", and the conversation pauses only for breaths. My mom tried to override almost everything the older aunt of hers was trying to get in edge-ways. But Bengalis are tenacious people. They just don't give up. My mom and the older-aunt who by some default Bengali nomenclature is called ranu-di"( a didi suffix instead of aunty), kept going back and forth as to what an ideal Bengali would do. Apparently both have no idea who handed out these rules. "Pandits, uff!" said my mom when I bothered her with historical queries. After much huffing and puffing and imaginative brain-storming they came to a consensus for what-to-do for "kulo saajano( the plate decoration used to welcome the groom)", "aayi buro bhaat", "dudhi mongol", "gaye holud" and "bidaai".

The rules are massaged according to convenience and laid out. Ranu-di was infinitely happy at being sought out for advice by my mom who hadn't really been in touch with her for goodness-knows-how-long. My mom was happy at nailing it down as well. She went about shopping. Much of it has been done before I set foot on my Bongland i.e. Kolkata. In my family, my advice is usually the last sought and the least followed. There is a genuine distrust in my americanized thinking even if I am brimming with Bengali-ness.
Before the D-Day the Bengali bride is home-fed with delicacies - the ritual is called "Aayiburo bhaat". If literally translated it means Spinster's Rice. If figuratively translated it means the food prepared especially for the bride-to-be before she departs forever to be fed by her husband/ in-laws. Because of the "forever" attached to it, the dishes are grand and myriad. I was overwhelmed with number of items that mom managed to prepare. Needless to say I got a fair share of the amazing Bengali cuisine as well.
On the D-Day, the "Dadhi Mongol" occurs before sunrise. The bride is blessed by parents and elders and water from the Ganges is gathered by the parents. My sister was given "khoi and doi" as the first and last meal till she got officially married. For the first time I got to act like the 2-minutes-elder-sister that I am and bless her along with the older relatives.
The "Gaye Holud"( Yellowing the Body) follows later in the day. The groom's family appeared with gifts and "holud" or turmeric for the bride. Of course when they spotted me, no matter how many times they had been told of my existence, they still stopped and stared a few minutes. One of them told me of a game they were planning to play later on, "Spot the Difference!". It sounded like a fun activity for them and a scrutinizing event for me. Thankfully it never happened.
The Bengali bride is usually starving on the day of her wedding, until the 3-4 hour long ceremonies are over. My sister needless to say was a brave-heart. She managed to decline my offerings of jumbo-sized rosogolla thrice! On the fourth attempt, she gave in. She promised she would return the favor when my turn arrived.
There are many intricate things that a Bengali bride and a groom are made to wear and carry. My sister was clasping her "Gachh kouto" and wearing "Shakha Pola (white and red bangles)", "sholaar mukut(hyacinth crown)", the traditional Benarasi Saree, the netted "choli"(veil) on the head, the ornaments, the deep red "Altaa" on the feet, the "payel (anklets)", the toe-rings, the trendy "mehendi" on her hands and the attitude of a beautiful bride. She looked fabulous. For once we weren't identical. She was a princess to behold and I was a mere side-kick!

The groom wears the huge and towering "topor", made of shola/dried hyacinth leaves. He wears paper silk punjabi and designer dhoti to look regal and important and groom-like.

My sister had gone to a parlor close to our home for her bridal make-over and they managed to make her look fabulous after a freakishly long time. You see, weddings are fun events. Beauty parlor assistants tend to rejoice and join in without invites. They started engaging in gossips, and tales and each regaled the other and so forth until, someone remembered that there was a "muhurat (auspicious wedding time)" involved and they better hurry up. My mom almost went into fits when I insisted to have my Saree fitted in a different manner than what was done after two long hours of my being there! My mom went to the extent of leaving the parlor with just the bare necessities - her purse and the bride. I was left behind. Thanks to my boot-camp days, I managed to outrun them and squeeze into the car that was about to leave for the "mandap (place of wedding)". Phew!

The eighty-year old punditji (priest) was a bubbling cauldron of activity and sarcasm. My dad had been involved since morning with rituals to please his fore fathers and invite their blessings for the wedding. He was starving as well. When the wedding started around 7:30pm, right after the "Ashirwaad", he wanted to get things going at a faster pace. He tried getting the punditji on board with his plans.
"Err...are you sure this needs to be done this way? There could be a quicker version available, no?" My father asked the pundit innocently.
The cauldron boiled over. He snorted loudly and smirked hugely.
"I have been doing this for Eighty years! There are no updated versions available, Got it?!!!"
That silenced my dad for the rest of the wedding session. I was left wondering how punditji was presiding over weddings even when he was a year old! I guess some professions don't have the age limit criteria.
Amid smoke, fires,video-graphers, photo-graphers, two squabbling pundits, several opinionated relatives and guests, some gate-crashers, careless kids and their angry parents, and some bemused non-Bengalis, the ceremonies concluded. The photographers decided on their own that their job was of supreme importance and hence they kept instructing the couple more frequently than the pundit. Our angry-old-man pundit became pretty docile when he was promised hero-like photos of his own to keep. I remained mesmerized by the fact that my sister was able to pose for countless cameras, big or small, real or phoney. Every one wanted a picture. Weddings are the one occasion where you are held as royalty. I was made to get into some of the pictures which later appeared on Facebook of friends titled, "Groom + 1.5 Wives", "Spot the Difference", "Real or Mirror-aginary?".
The newly wed couple were escorted for food. I joined them. For everyone it was a buffet but for THE Couple it was sit-down-service-several-times-over.
For the night of wedding, "Bashor Ghor" is organized. The young members of the bride's and groom's family congregate for a night-out filled with fun, games, gossips, music and endless talk.
Bengalis are good at talking. They are the most versatile talkers I have met. Give them any topic, from pin to plane, they will have something to say about it. My sister's Basor Ghor was fun because the groom's side was filled with amazing singers. They sang beautifully, male and female and buoyed by their encouragement I oped my mouth to sing. When I finished my extra-long Rabindra-sangeet my sister was the only one not snoring.

The D-Day passed into "Bidaai (farewell)". Amidst tears and howls my sister departed with her hubby. The mandap stood forlorn and the relatives dispersed quickly afterwards.
Receptions followed after a day. None were as significant or as memorable as the wedding day to me. I returned to my California with indelible memories of a Bengali Wedding.
It was soon after that my grandmother fell down. She hurt herself and was rushed to the hospital. Her condition stabilized for a while when she returned home but that was just a pause in the endless struggle she was about to undergo. She left us after a month of tormented existence. I have always been close to my mom's mom, my grandmother. She was the amazing cook whom my mom never equaled, she was the story-teller and the savior when our mom was about to give us a sound beating and she was the one who gave very practical advice to make our lives better. She had struggled all her life and never cowered under pressure. When she visited the hospital - it was the first and the last time in her eighty year old existence. I was lucky to have her at my sister's wedding. My parents attended the solemn funeral held in Kolkata.

Last month, I went back home, this time for my wedding. This wedding was Bengali but wasn't in Bongland. It was organized in Mumbai. It was Bengali in essence and yet adapted differently. I was prepared for all the rituals this time, having seen one just a few months ago. Suffice it to say, it was a marriage of the East and West, like the "2 States" by Chetan Bhagat.

Like a movie that is still rolling, the end isn't there. It is the start of a new life for everyone - for those that married and for those that moved on from this life. And with everything new, is the feeling of freshness. Life forges intrepidly ahead.